Hard News by Russell Brown

22

Friday Music: What Alltracks is actually about

The slow, steady shift of audiences to streaming music services has been a mixed blessing for NZ On Air, whose job it is to help us hear more of ourselves wherever.

On one hand, it takes music discovery away from the strictures of commercial radio programming. The music that will fit into a radio format and the music actually being made by and for New Zealanders often aren't always the same thing, and in the past NZ On Air has been obliged to make funding decisions to try and bridge the gap.

In recent years the development of YouTube as a music platform – it's New Zealanders' biggest online listening venue by some stretch – has changed things a lot. NZ On Air can (and does) report every single play of a video it funds as a measure of its decisions. That fact actually underwrites the broader scope of the Making Tracks funding scheme introduced several years ago.

But the problem is, of course, even bringing their own music to the attention of New Zealanders when they visit the great new jukeboxes in the cloud. Spotify has no innate interest in New Zealand music and its algorithims don't particularly recognise it as a genre. Without a DJ, it all gets lost in the crowd.

The agency has already taken some steps towards curation, with useful new-music playlists on its Souncloud account. More recently, it commissioned forner Kiwi FM host Charlotte Ryan to curate an alt-and-indie playlist on Spotify.

Those now appear to have been steps towards Alltracks, the NZ On Air playlist site that launched this week with curated lists reflecting seven genres. The playlists can be played on site (as embedded YouTube clips) or – and this is really the idea – followed and enjoyed on third-party platforms. It's a very simplified version of what the BBC does with the all-singing-all-dancing Playlister.

Significantly, with the exception of Folk & Country (group-curated by Christchurch's RDU station), they're all put together by named individuals. It's no accident that Apple has hired New Zealander Zane Lowe – probably the most influential tastemaker in radio – away from the BBC to be a face of its forthcoming streaming service.

The new site has already copped a withering review from the New Zealand Herald's Karl Puschmann. Some of his criticisms are fair, others really are not. I think it's worth going through them.

He says:

... it feels like these curators have simply rattled off as many local songs as they could recall offhand before buggering off for lunch. Quantity rather than quality rules and there's barely a rare cut, deep album track or overlooked gem to be found in the mix. It's a squandered opportunity.

NZ On Air's mandate is principally to encourage audiences towards what it has funded. Since Making Tracks was introduced, it funds just that: tracks. But, particularly in the rock genres, it would be good to see less likely tracks included in the playlists.

After that BS I almost admire the utterly shameless chutzpah of Dance & Electronic curator Dan Aux who saw fit to include two of his own songs on his playlist.

Yes, and he plays his own songs on his radio shows and in the club. But the main reason is probably because those songs were funded by NZ On Air.

What I'd really like to know is why there's no unsigned or new music playlist. That should definitely be there. This site is supposedly about discovery. I'm pretty sure we've discovered all we're going to about Connan Mockasin by now. How about trying to break some new acts rather than championing the same tired old faces? Get jiggy wit it gawddamit. You're on the Internet now. All bets are off. Go crazy and wild. Please.

Karl, you'll be wanting TheAudience, another fine site funded by NZ On Air, whose job it is to present stuff straight out of the garage and the bedroom.

 ... how about each time the playlist updates the curator writes a couple of paragraphs explaining why they chose this set of tunes and what the music they've picked means to them.

Seems like a good idea.

The other big problem is that AllTracks is a "portal" site. This means it's a middle man.

You click on the playlist you want to listen to and it shunts you off over to YouTube, Soundcloud or Spotify.

Yes, that's the idea. Those sites are where the audience already goes.

I know times are tough but couldn't NZ On Air have sprung for local hosting of these local tunes?

No. It's not NZ On Air's job to run a radio station or to build a whole new listening platform and expect people to come to it. Alltracks is actually a very simple site with a fairly simple job. It's not there to replicate Spotify or Soundcloud. That would be a rather more expensive exercise.

... it's a hodgepodge of carelessness. Not every song is available on each host site. Soundcloud suffers the most in this regard, with a massive number of omissions.

On the other hand, you'll find many tracks – especially new ones – that are on Soundcloud and not on the others. That's not NZ On Air's fault, it's the nature of the platforms. It can't force record labels and artists to put their music on Soundcloud.

Unforgivably, sound quality is also inconsistent, reliant as it is on the host site. YouTube is the worst offender here. NZ On Air clearly hasn't uploaded these songs themselves to ensure the video is of decent quality. They really should have. 

No, they shouldn't. It's a condition of video funding that the clip goes up on YouTube, but the clip belongs to the artist and label. NZ On Air can't just upload everything on its own account. Apart from anything else, views of clips on YouTube are a revenue stream for their owners.

... at the moment AllTracks is fairly pointless. You can easily compile your own local music playlist on Spotify, you can easily hunt down any old Kiwi music vid you feel like watching on YouTube and Soundcloud will spin off randomly through similar acts from any starting point you give it.

Yes, you can do all these things, assuming you know what you're after and can find it. Alltracks is a simple shopfront for subscribable playlists centred (although not exclusively) on music and videos that have received NZ On Air support.

None of this is to say that Alltracks couldn't do with a bit more work and maybe a clearer focus on its job. I think the mix between the old and new on the playlists is a little awkward – the site needs a "what's new" option. Perhaps simply bouncing the NZ On Air Soundcloud playlists back over to Alltracks would be a good idea. As things stand, the dance and electronic playlist works well, because there's so much relatively new material to choose from, and it's all on Soundcloud. The rock and metal playlist, not so much.

I expect Alltracks will improve, and selling it the right way will be crucial, but it's important to remember that it's designed to fit within an environment, and not be the environment itself.

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Hot Chocolate's singles remind me of my childhood, so I did feel sad to learn yesterday that the band's leader, the effortlessly cool Errol Brown, had passed away aged 71. Apparently, I wasn't alone: his death made successive Radio New Zealand news bulletins.

Hot Chocolate's biggest hit is and will always be 'You Sexy Thing', which got another run in the 90s as part of The Full Monty. But Alexis Petridis makes a good case in The Guardian for Hot Chocolate being a stranger and more interesting band than most people realised.

He notes "the astonishing 1974 hit Emma, an impossibly morose tale of poverty, failure and suicide. The latter featured a remarkable vocal from Brown: he’s the model of resigned stoicism until the song’s closing minute, where he unleashes a series of harrowing screams."

There were the other hits, including, of course, 'Everyone's A Winner'. But there was a lot more than that. They were an odd mix in the way that only a British band could be. Alan Perrott put me onto this 1972 rock track for RAK, which sounds completely unlike any of their later music:

'Mindless Boogie', which, crazily, references the Jonestown Massacre:

And then there was 'Heaven is in the Back Seat of My Cadillac', which unfortnately put an end to the band's string of hits in 1976. I found a great rework of that:

Happily, I also located a high-quality download for it on a blog that stopped publishing in 2009. Right-click on this link and party in your kitchen, baby.

Hot Chocolate broke up in 1986 (the band replaced Errol with an Errol Brown impersonator!) and Errol's career thereafter was essentially being Errol Brown formerly of Hot Chocolate. But he was honoured with an MBE in 2003 and an Ivor Novello Award in 2004. His personal note thanking the fans who turned up for what he knew would be his last UK tour in 2008 is genuinely touching.

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When I was 20 and working at Rip It Up in the loft of a long-gone lift-less building in Darby Street, the office turntable was an education. Sometimes, when Murray Cammick put on a record, things would light up for me. One such record was Shannon's 'Let the Music Play'. I might have been a scruffy indie kid, but I loved that record. I loved the drums, the way the vocals were produced, the sound of the thing.

One day, when I thought I was aone in the office, I played the 12" several times in succession, as loud as you like. Until Snake T-shirts' designer Hal Chapman came storming out from his end of the loft promising to personally smash the record if I put the fucking thing on again. Heh.

What I didn't know at the time was that 'Let the Music Play' was effectively the start of a style of music that came to be called "latin hip hop" or electro. Or that that iconic New York style would take form on the city's independent radio stations at the hands of of a bunch of ingenious kids who – because they did not have samplers – created edits and mixes by physically splicing tape.

These days, it's a cut-and-paste job on a computer – back then it needed manual skills and real creativity. It also demanded some enterprise from the listener: the mixes were often recorded to cassette and dubbed and distributed from there. It must have been an exciting kind of radio at both ends.

That's the story told in Revolutions On Air: The Golden Era of New York Radio 1980 - 1988, a short documentary from Red Bull Music Academy.

It's not only that significant elements of today's popular music were forged at those stations, but that what the likes of the Latin Rascals did still sounds great. Here's a 107-minute mix from Kiss FM in 1985:

There are quite a few of these on Soundcloud, but this one was posted to accompany Stretch Armstrong's lengthy background essay on the scene, which concludes with an amazing edit-by-edit breakdown of the mix itself.

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Princess Chelsea has a new track. Wistful vocals, chiming keyboards and a dash of Jonathan Bree:

On TheAudience, yet another young woman producing her own. The tumbling beats of October (click through for the download):

And another (also downloadable): the hauting lo fi styles of Womb. I like this:

And one more! The lilting voice of Amber Maya, a New Zealander born in Barbados and now living in Auckland:

And finally ... last Saturday, the lineup at Weird Night Out at the St James included a kid who (and only partly because he shares management with Lorde) has been talked about as the next big thing for the past year.

Thomston was playing his first public show, which will have been daunting for a couple of reasons. Firstly, because the kind of pop-R&B-downbeat music he's making isn't necessarily easy to reproduce in a live setting. Secondly, because, as this week's profile in Britain's Daily Telegraph notes, last Saturday was a lead-in to a series of European festival dates, where he will be be under close inspection.

I actually thought he was pretty amazing, and that the band format he and his management have put together didn't just work, it was in some ways more impressive than his recordings, which don't always work for me.

Principal case in point, this monster ballad, which is lighter in its recorded form but was powerful and impressive live. For a young man playing his first show, Thomston brought a hell of a lot of stagecraft:

I hope they don't get too hung up on tailoring Thomston as a popstar for teenage girls, because I think on the evidence of last Saturday, his music and performance carry much more weight than that. He's a very interesting young man.

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The Hard News Music Post is sponsored by:

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